How to Get Your First Freelance Design Clients

So, you’ve spent months (or years) honing your design skills with the goal of building a new creative career you love. Now that you’ve mastered every technique, taken every class, and built a nice portfolio of sample projects, you’re ready to turn your skill into a sustainable freelancing career and get your first freelance design clients.

But now what? How do you find your first paying clients with no actual client work to show? How do you convince people you don’t know to hire you and pay you for your work? We chatted with a few of the design mentors at on-demand mentorship service RookieUp for their tips on how to find your first freelance clients and grow a freelancing career. Hayden Aube is an illustrator and designer who’s worked for clients around the world, and Rich Armstrong is a UX Designer who runs his own freelance studio in Amsterdam. Both of these awesome designers have amazing experience starting from nothing and building full-time freelance careers.

Put together a portfolio of projects you’ve worked on. Don’t have enough projects? Create some more!

One of the most important things in your arsenal is a portfolio. Not only is this likely to be a potential client’s first impression of you, but it’s an easy way to showcase your strengths and let clients know what type of work you’re most interested in. If you’re just getting started, you likely won’t have much client work to showcase in a portfolio, which is fine. Hayden recommends that “while you’re looking for those real projects, make up some of your own. Not only will this improve your abilities and bolster your portfolio, but it will have you ready to go once the projects do come in.”

To figure out the best sorts of projects to work on when you’re building up your portfolio, think about what aspects of design interest you the most and focus your projects around this. After all, the work you showcase on your portfolio is likely the work you’ll have the easiest time selling to new clients. Rich confirms this approach, suggesting to “include only work you want to do more of in your portfolio.” After all, if a client is going to hire you, they want to know you’ve done similar work before, even if it is just from personal projects.

Whether or not you should provide in-depth written explanations of your process for each portfolio piece is hotly-debated in the design community. If you’re a visual designer, your work should speak for itself and should do the work of hooking people on its own. However, if you’re a UX designer, a case study might be more important. Regardless, focus on surfacing your best work as quickly as possible and don’t showcase anything that isn’t up to your highest standards.

If you need some additional project inspiration, check out these articles on Skillcrush and HOW Design for some unique project ideas.

Buy your domain, build your portfolio, and choose a social strategy

The first thing most freelancing clients will see after you reach out to them is your portfolio, so make it amazing!

  • Buy your personal domain. Owning an easy-to-remember domain based on your name is crucial so that anyone searching for you can find you easily.
  • Choose a portfolio platform and build your site
    • SquarespaceWebydo, and Webflow are three platforms that are designed specifically for creatives looking to create a beautiful online home.
    • Dribbble and Behance are a few other active online communities where designers post their work and receive feedback from others
  • Pick a few relevant social channels to focus on. A big mistake is creating accounts on 10 different social networks and not giving any of them a significant amount of energy. Instead, pick 2 or 3 that fit with your goals. For example, if you love creating infographics, Pinterest can be a great way to build an audience, whereas Instagram is great if you’ve got a unique illustration or visual design style.

Don’t be afraid to leverage your personal networks, specifically family and friends

If you ask pretty much any designer, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that their first clients came from personal referrals. This makes sense – early in your career when you don’t have a lot of client work to showcase, social validation via a personal connection is a great way to build a sense of trust.

For Hayden, “[his] very first clients, as I believe with many young designers, came through family and friends. They were not the most glamorous or high-paying jobs but I was grateful to have them.” If none of your personal connections own businesses in need of design services, reach out to friends and family to ask if they’d be willing to pass your name and portfolio on to their connections with potential design work available.

When you’re meeting potential clients via referrals, come prepared and be casual. Rich recommends to “set up a meeting or meetings – the more face time the better. See if you click, and when work is available it will come, or just continue coming. Treat meeting potential clients as dates – the more the better, and the better chance of meeting the right fit.” Based on the type of project they’re hiring for, do some research and come to the meeting with feedback and initial concepts or ideas.

Whenever you finish a project that your client is happy with, let them know you’re available for more freelance work in the future. If they’re happy with your work, ask if they’re comfortable referring you to other partners of theirs as they need design work done as well. Many freelancers build their entire careers off of the snowball effect of their first few referrals, so take advantage of this whenever possible!

Join in-person and online communities to build new relationships

Hayden “[has] found the very best approach for meeting new clients is to look at it as making friends. No one wants to be sold to and not many of us want to sell to people, so don’t even think about it. Just go to events, join chat groups and attend meetups that are focused on things you are already interested in. When making friends, what you do will come up naturally and if they have work for you at any point they will gladly send it your way. If not, you’re still having fun.” Meetup is one of the best ways to find local events, both in the design space and in industries you’d like to work in.

Reach out directly to companies you love

Don’t be afraid to reach out directly to companies whose work you like. The worst thing they can say is no. When you reach out to them, always write a personalized message that shows you’re not blindly copying a pitch email template. If you have a particular industry focus, search for the companies in this field (Manta has a great search tool to find small businesses) to get for the best companies to reach out to. To stand out even more, Rich suggests “sending the cool things you make to brands and people you want to work with.” A beautiful piece of design can catch someone’s interest much better than a multi-paragraph email message!

Do your best work on every project, no matter how small

Hayden says “it sounds simple but great work is the number one catalyst for getting more. An easy mistake designers make is to put in minimal effort if a job does not pay very well. Regardless of what you’re being compensated, you must make every project amazing. Even if you decide you don’t want to work with that client after, doing great work means they are likely to share you with their friends and you have something you’re proud to show in your portfolio.”

So go forth and find your first freelance design clients! If you want to chat with someone who’s already built a successful career in the freelance space, check out the design mentors on RookieUp. We built RookieUp to provide on-demand access to a community of high quality design professionals, so you can get personalized answers to all your freelancing questions from people who have been in your shoes before.